Several years ago, when the number of dogs in animal shelters was skyrocketing, someone hit upon a marketing strategy that increased pet adoption exponentially: Rather than names like Spot, Cuddles, or Fido, they gave them celebrity names like George Clooney, James Earl Jones, and Penélope Cruz. Whereas Rover did not seem to evoke a connection, Colin Firth, a hound/terrier mix, found an immediate home. Janeane Garofalo, a pit bull, was adopted nearly as quickly (“Uh-Oh: George Clooney Is Drooling Again,” Allen Salkin, The New York Times, December 20, 2013).
Never doubt for a moment the tremendous power of language! When it comes to establishing a connection, forming a bond, or developing a relationship, the names and images we use make a tremendous difference.
We see this in our weekly Torah portion, B’shalach, where the imagery the Israelites use to describe God is striking. The main drama in B’shalach occurs on the banks of the Sea of Reeds. First, the Israelites watch the waters peel back, creating a pathway by which they escape the Egyptians and reach the other side. Then, they witness the collapse of the walls of water, consuming the Egyptians in the midst of their pursuit. When the sea is once again still, Moses leads the Israelites in a song that extols God’s wondrous power. We call it Shirat HaYam, the Song at the Sea, and it is the source of our daily recitation of Mi Chamocha, “Who is like You...?”. The song declares:
"Who is like You, Eternal One, among the celestials;
Who is like You, majestic in holiness,
Awesome in splendor, working wonders!
The Eternal will reign for ever and ever!"
While it was common throughout the Ancient Near East to depict divine beings as kings, the Song at the Sea is the first place in Torah where God is described as a king: a sovereign with eternal reign. How comforting it must have felt to the Israelites — both those who stood on the banks of the sea and later generations who might have drafted the narrative — to picture God offering the protective power of a mighty monarch committed to defending His people.
This imagery continues in our liturgy. On the High Holidays, we say, Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father, Our King.” (Mishkan HaNefesh, Rosh HaShanah, p. 222-225). The central prayers of T’filah state, Melech ozeir umoshi-a umagein, “Sovereign who delivers, helps, and shields” (Mishkan T’fliah, p. 76). And the first blessings we teach our children for food, candle lighting, and holidays contain the familiar formula, Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, “Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe.” Clearly, for some, addressing God as a ruler or monarch remains a meaningful way of connecting with the divine.
Yet, for others, this imagery creates too much distance, too much hierarchy, too much of a power differential — perhaps too much power altogether. Perhaps God as Healer, Rock, or Holy One better describes the divine presence they know and feel in their lives. These names, too, are found in our tradition, along with numerous others in Torah, the Hebrew Bible, Rabbinic texts, and modern prayers: Shepherd of Israel; Shield of Abraham; Sarah’s Help; Source of Peace, of Strength, of Life, of Love. None of these describe all of God; all of them describe a part of God.
One of my favorite activities to do with students of all ages is to brainstorm names by which we might call God. We consider relationships: parent (how does Father differ from Mother?), grandparent (does Bubbe feel different than Grandma?), friend, and guardian. We might brainstorm professions such as teacher, counselor, judge, and nurse. We look at the poetry of Debbie Perlman, who creates entirely new language by which to call God: Connection-Maker, Heart-Binder, People-Linker, Component-Designer. (Debbie Perlman, “Forty-Four,” Flames to Heaven: New Psalms for Healing & Praise (RadPublishers, 1998), p. 53). Once we’ve begun, wherever we’ve begun, we let the ideas continue to flow.
After we’ve filled the board with possibilities, I invite participants to select one of the many potential names we’ve listed and write a letter addressed to God with the word they choose. On my desk right now, I have samples, collected over the years, written to My Partner, Pen-Pal, Source of Imagination, Mentor, Love beyond Love, Little League Coach. Particularly memorable one year was a piece that described God as sous chef — not the executive chef, but the one who prepares the space, readies the ingredients, gets everything set for us (as the author envisioned the relationship) to put the pieces together. These are metaphors that describe only one aspect of God, of course; but each metaphor, each name, each word or phrase helps its user feel the infinite possibilities.
Language can be an impediment in our relationship with the divine, but if we are willing to use our imaginations, language can open up myriad possibilities for connection. Often we dismiss what doesn’t work for us, defining God only as what God isn’t. Yet we do not have to understand God the way the ancient Israelites did, as a sovereign or king. Rather, we can use our own approach, as the poet, Ruth Brin, suggests:
"When men were children, they thought of God as a father;
When men were slaves, they thought of God as a master;
When men were subjects, they thought of God as a king.
But I am a woman, not a slave, not a subject, not a child who longs for God as father or mother.
I might imagine God as a teacher or friend, but those images,
like king, master, father or mother, are too small for me now.
God is the force of motion and light in the universe;
God is the strength of life on our planet;
God is the power moving us to do good;
God is the source of love springing up in us.
God is far beyond what we can comprehend."
(Ruth Brin, Mishkan HaNefesh, Yom Kippur, p. 109).
Like Ruth Brin, and the Israelites themselves, may we reflect upon our own experiences, our own understanding of God’s presence in the world — and may expressing our own truths help us draw ever closer to the divine.
Rabbi Stephanie M. Alexander is the senior rabbi at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston, SC. She is a past-president and founding member of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, a faith-based social justice organization of 29 diverse congregations.